BATON ROUGE, La. – For the first time since 2005, Les Miles’ first season as LSU’s coach, the Tigers will already be home by the time the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Typically that’s a sign of a disappointing season, which is certainly the case for a Tigers team (8-4) that fell well short of the standard that Miles set in his first decade at LSU. This was not a great season, and if the Tigers fail to win their bowl game, they will match the 2008 team for LSU’s fewest wins in a season under Miles.
With all of that said, however, LSU’s matchup in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl is as good as an 8-4 team could expect. The Tigers drew Notre Dame (7-5), which like LSU was ranked in the top 10 early in the season before a late slide.
Both programs have played for a national championship within the last four seasons, and while they both finished this regular season with a flop, a game featuring two of the sport’s most successful programs provides a reason to get excited about playing one more game.
“It adds a little more relevancy to the opponent just because it’s such a big-name program. Two great programs, us and them,” LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “So you grow up looking at Notre Dame and watching them play since you were little. And it’s always a program that’s in the national spotlight, so it’s easier to really get up for it.
“No matter who the opponent would have been, we would have got up for it, obviously, but definitely Notre Dame, we can get excited for a great team like that, to play them.”
The caliber of the programs should drive interest despite a 3 p.m. ET kickoff on Tuesday, Dec. 30, and the game will add to the considerable history between the Tigers and Fighting Irish.
LSU and Notre Dame have actually played 10 times, the most of any SEC opponent against the Fighting Irish. Both clubs have won five times in series history, so this will be a rubber match of sorts.
“LSU and Notre Dame, they have some history with each other in bowl games,” LSU running back Terrence Magee said. “So growing up, Notre Dame is a big program. They’ve been on the big stage lately playing Alabama in the national championship, and I think it’s going to be a big matchup for us. I’m excited about it.”
Oddly enough, the bowl trip also will help LSU’s seniors cross Nashville off the list of SEC towns where they will have played. The Tigers haven’t played in Music City since 2010 and while several fifth-year seniors (including Connor Neighbors, D.J. Welter, Travis Dickson, Evan Washington and Justin Maclin) were on LSU’s team that season, none of them played in the Tigers’ 27-3 win over Vanderbilt.
Missouri is the only SEC team that LSU hasn’t faced in the last five seasons, and Mizzou, Kentucky and South Carolina are the only SEC towns where the Tigers haven’t played in that period.
But the location of this game is only a footnote. After all, nobody on either of these teams set a preseason goal of finishing the year with a bowl game in Tennessee. It’s the opposition that drives interest for fans and players alike.
“It really doesn’t matter, the destination,” LSU cornerback Jalen Collins said. “I feel like the opponent is the bigger part. It’s who we’re playing and how we finish the game.”
In that regard, both clubs are getting off lucky. Notre Dame lost five of its last six games after ranking as high as fifth at one point. LSU dropped two of the last three after it ranked eighth early in the season.
Obviously the season didn’t end the way fans of either school once hoped, so getting to face a big-name opponent in a bowl game was far from a foregone conclusion. The sunny side of the teams’ late stumbles – certainly from the bowl’s perspective, as this is probably the best pairing in Music City Bowl’s 17-year history – is that they paved the way for a bowl pairing that’s actually interesting.
Both teams were better last season, but Notre Dame’s bowl game against Rutgers and LSU’s against Iowa didn’t do much for anybody. At least now we get to see two of the sport’s most historically significant programs meet. All things considered, that’s not so bad.